180 Year Anniversary. Chokan Valikhanov. Great Adventures From The Great Game

So many epithets were used to describe Chokan Valikhanov: the “Columbus of Kashgaria”, a “brilliant meteor”, “the last prince of the steppe”… And yet, for all their grandiloquence, at most they only tell us little about all the many facets of the personality of this Russian officer of Kazakh origin. Valikhankov was a traveller, a writer, an ethnographer, a historian, a geographer, a soldier, an intelligence agent, an artist, a cartographer, and simply an adventurer, in the best sense of this word.

Before Kashgar

Being a descendant of the Kazakh khan Abylay (and, hence, of Genghis Khan), Valikhanov possessed an uncommon talent and thirst for knowledge since his childhood. His father sent him, aged 12, to the Omsk military school – a place, which made the greatest impact on Valikhanov’s destiny, whether we speak about connections, friends, opinion or knowledge. It was there that he met Grigoiy Potanin, and later, Feodor Dostoyevsky. Here he began not only desk research on Asian history, but, on graduation from the military school and appointment as adjutant to the governor general of Western Siberia, he became a field researcher as well.

Central Asia, over the open spaces of which he repeatedly travelled up and down during his short life, was undoubtedly the main sphere of his interests. The second half of the 19th Century, the epoch of the Great Game (the period of rivalry between the British and Russian empires for sovereignty in this rather strategically important region) was an interesting time for people like Valikhanov. The Xinjiang area of this “Game” was especially difficult, taking into account that the interests of the vast Chinese empire were also involved. Be as it may, in the 1850s it was possible to meet intelligence agents, geographers, ethnographers, geodesists and other lovers of adventure on the mountainous routes of the Pamir, Karakorum and Kun Lun and in the expanses of the Taklamakan desert, Tibet and Fergana valley. Valikhanov could not keep himself from joining this legendary galaxy of eminent adventures.

The journey of his life

The most important element in the career of Chokan Valikhanov, and, probably in his whole life, was his well-known journey to Kashgaria, the southern part of today’s Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. The trip to Kuldzha, during which his first acquaintance with East Turkestan took place, was a prologue to it. His diaries from that time prove that Valikhanov was already a serious and observant researcher.

Travel to Kashgaria was more than dangerous because almost all foreigners (with minor exceptions like Kokandi and Bukharan merchants) were forbidden
access to its territory by the Chinese authorities. Valikhanov, who was already a lieutenant by the age of 22, went on the risky expedition of the imperial Russian Geographical Society in the guise of Alimbay, a Kokandi subject, “an Andizhan merchant”. Such secrecy, of course, rather hindered Chokan’s work, in that he could not make his normal diaries, records and sketches, which is why he later had to write much from memory.


Valikhanov joined the trade caravan of a merchant, Musabay Tokhtubaev, at the natural boundary of Karamula, near modern Taldykorgan. Ahead, there were more than three months of travel, full of deprivations and dangers. Kyrghyz Syrt, with its extensive and severe upland climate, was a difficult area for travel. Valikhanov wrote the following: “The considerable cold constantly dominates, in summertime there are snow falls,
there are long snowstorms which delay caravans for several days; snowstorms are especially dangerous, because there is no fuel on the caravans routes, except dried animal dung,”. Besides natural difficulties, the caravan was also constantly harassed by local thieves: the open spaces of Kyrgyzstan were always dangerous for travellers. Here is an extract from Valikhanov’s diary: “The ancestors of the Kirghiz created methodical, time-honoured rules by which they plunder caravans, but in their own eyes they plunder lawfully, based on ancient customs and rights … a caravan, passing through the lands (uluses) of Kirghiz ancestors, had to pay an obligatory fee (zyaket) … had to give a ransom for an unimpeded journey”. On the way to Chinese territory, Valikhanov buried his first diary at Terekty pass as a precaution, hoping to recover it on his way back.

Then followed five months in Kashgar, during which Chokan had time to make a rather detailed study of the life of the whole extensive region. He also made many trips on its territory, to make many
acquaintances in all possible spheres, to familiarize himself with a great number of books, hitherto unknown in the West, and even temporarily to marry (as was the custom for merchants in those days who were far from home). The caravan started back home at the beginning of March 1859. And even then Valikhanov did not stop his research, but months of life under cover and the constant stress had exhausted him and he fell ill. Undeterred he still wrote about the ancient caravanserai of Tash Rabat, the fortification of Kurtka
and local customs.


After Kashgar

On his arrival in St Petersburg, Valikhanov was granted an audience with Tsar Alexander II, was awarded the order of St Vladimir, and received early promotion to the rank of staff captain. His report to the Imperial Russian Geographical Society caused a sensation. In summary, it was a triumphant period, which was followed by about a year in St Petersburg, meeting the intellectual elite of Russia, working in the imperial Russian Geographical Society on a set of publications on the history and culture of Central Asia, working on regional maps in the General Staff, and also serving in the Asian Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Valikhanov’s stay in St Petersburg was accompanied by great longing to return to the steppes. Something of the city bothered him and set him on course for worse times. Having returned home and witnessing the lawlessness there, he had great desire to reform the government system in his homeland and tried to get involved in politics. He even won election to the post of senior sultan of Atbasar District; however, he was not confirmed in this post. Valikhanov returned to military service, but the capture of Pishpek (now Bishek) and Aulie-Ata (now Taraz) caused heavy loss of life in the peaceful population, and he openly confronted Colonel Chernyaev, after which he left the army in protest. Then he married and spent half a year of his life in the foothills of Altyn-Emel and later, died of tuberculosis (if accepting the official version) at the early age of thirty.

Some say that the role of Chokan Valikhanov in the “opening up” of Kashgaria was exaggerated by Kazakh and Russian historians, in comparison with Adolf von Schlagintwveit, or the outstanding Francis Younghusband. Valikhanov resolutely wrote
about everything: about the history and politics, economy and trade, geography and topography, flora and fauna, geology, climate, linguistics and art. It would be easier to list the things he did not write about, since he found a place for everything in his narrative,
even for the description of local cuisine, clothes, headdress and sexual customs. He also accompanied the texts with maps, diagrams and drawings.

Poetry instead of Prose

Versus modern expeditions (and all the help they have from modern technology) Valikhanov’s writing was utterly uncharacteristic of typical scientists of the time. His notes are interesting to read as literary works in which there is much romanticism and poetry. Just listen to these lines from his Kuldzha diary: “Boundless as the sea, the steppe is covered by a thousand different grasses. Meagre flowers, delicate and pretty, are spread like a green cloth. As the wind blows, so grasses wave evenly and ripple silently. Life if everywhere
bees, butterflies wing from flower to flower. I myself am an inhabitant of the steppe it is high time to address the subject”.

Maybe it was his age that allowed Valikhanov to describe in detailed notes relations with women, their beauty and merits. Who else, except Valikhanov, would dare to bring such things into traditionally dull expedition reports?

Nowadays, The institute of History and Ethnology in Almaty is named after Valikhanov, and his tall monument rises up directly opposite the building of the Kazakhstan Academy of Sciences as if to remind modern scientists that “all is as boundless as the steppe – both
desires, and affairs”. His works have been translated into many languages, several films have been made about his life, and many books and articles have been written about him. This attention is the least that posterity can show to thank the brave traveller who expanded the frontiers of man’s knowledge of the world.

by Vitaliy Shuptar

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